Historic church endures adversity
Flooding, conflicts won't deter members of St. James AME
For 140 years, St. James AME Church has been an anchor for black parishioners in North Lawrence and beyond.
But months of weather damage and recent insider conflicts left church leaders wondering whether the historic building – and its congregation – could survive even one more year.
“We had to decide what we were going to do, either keep the church or not,” head steward Charlene Coleman said.
Now, the church sits vacant at the corner of North Seventh and Maple streets, its roof half off and covered by tarps, its historic sign – now removed from the lawn – leans against the building’s chipping white siding.
Leader revives church
St. James AME Church has for years competed with other black churches in town – namely its sister church St. Luke AME, Ninth and New York streets, and the Ninth Street Baptist Church – for membership and funding.
When former church leader the Rev. Gregory Gray took over in 2000, the church’s congregation was down to four people, he said.
But Gray had a plan, he said. Described by St. James members as a charismatic, booming presence, Gray reached out to the broader Lawrence community for fresh faces to draw across the river.
He looked toward the university, recruiting members who would typically attend the Ninth Street church, which is near campus. He also began to recruit parishioners from Olathe and Topeka, from Kansas City and Eudora, he said.
The efforts worked. By 2005, the church had 240 members. Sundays there became vibrant under Gray’s direction, winning the Church of the Year and Pastor of the Year awards four times at the AME regional conference.
Gray’s influence began to grow as well. He quickly climbed the ranks of the church hierarchy, eventually becoming marshal to the region’s AME bishop, said both Gray and officials at First AME Church in Kansas City, Kan.
By 2005, Gray had assembled a congregation that he said was one of the most diverse in the area – with traditional black attendees sitting side by side with white and Hispanic worshipers Sunday mornings.
“I was willing to step out and welcome people of all colors,” Gray said. “That’s what heaven should look like.”
Rains and conflict
Then, last year, heavy rains flooded much of North Lawrence – and Gray, former church trustee Don Shepard and then-assistant pastor Greg Jackson awoke to a church mired in five feet of water.
“A couple of times water flooded the basement,” Jackson said.
The three men and others spent hours pumping rainwater from the church basement, but by then it was too late. Mildew began to crawl through the walls of the church.
Without the funding to pay for cleanup, Jackson said, the mildew quickly turned to black mold.
Suddenly, church officials and members were stuck searching for a place to worship.
“At the time, we just didn’t have the funds,” Jackson said.
So Gray and his congregation held services at the Union Pacific Depot – a great facility, Gray said – and then the Boys and Girls Club. All the while, parts of the church, including the building’s roof, began to fall apart.
Other relationships may have begun to fall apart as well.
Sometime during the yearly regional AME meeting in the fall last year, Gray and the organization hit an impasse, church officials and others close to the organization said.
Officials at St. James didn’t give a specific reason for the problems between Gray and the AME organization, saying only that it was a problem that apparently couldn’t be solved.
“There’s always splitting in the church,” Jackson said. “A faction goes this way, a faction goes that way.”
Gray said the problems began when he asked the AME for help fixing the weather-damaged building. After a month of waiting, Gray said, he heard nothing from the organization.
“No finances were coming in,” Gray said.
Gray and a handful of church members attended the regional AME meetings this fall, and whatever friction existed between Gray and the church apparently came to a head there.
“When you disagree with people in authority, either you’re in charge or they’re in charge,” Jackson said.
Steve Cousin, the regional director of the AME organization, did not return several calls seeking comment.
Gray leaves church
Jackson took over as minister of St. James after Gray left last fall to start his own congregation – a congregation that Gray called “more diverse.”
When Gray left, he took a good deal of the congregation with him, Jackson said – including many of the people who come from Kansas City and Topeka to attend the church. Gray’s congregation now meets at the Holidome.
“When he left, they left with him,” Jackson said.
Gray also left the damaged church building, the roof patched with plastic tarps and dangerous mold still living in the walls.
Jackson insisted that there were no hard feelings between the church and Gray, saying he still talks to Gray often.
“He’d be welcome to come back and work with us,” Jackson said.
Plans for rebuilding
And, if plans hold, the church won’t stay in disrepair for long. Thursday, construction crews were to begin taking hammer to nail, repairing the damaged roof.
The construction is just a first step, church officials said, but an important one toward restoring a church that has been home to generations of Lawrence residents.
Though St. James wasn’t the first black church in Lawrence – both St. Luke and Ninth Street Baptist Church predate it by three years – it quickly became a cultural and religious hub for a thriving black community in North Lawrence in the 1800s.
“The church was the social and political outlet, the congregating place of African-Americans,” local historian Alice Fowler told the Journal-World in 2004. “Churches provided their own resources for African-Americans during the early years.”
And those residents whose families attended generations ago have chipped in the most, head steward Coleman said. She said the church tapped sources who have been with the church for 20 years or more.
In just more than three months, the church gathered $10,000, enough to fix the fractured roof – the first step toward preparing the church to again hold services.
Which means the world to families like those of Janine Colter, a trustee of the church whose family has attended St. James for generations.
There’s no set date for when the church will be ready again for services, but as long as the core congregation – about 40 people – continues to strive toward saving the building, St. James will be just fine, Colter said.
“We’re going to keep on going on,” she said. “It’s very meaningful to me.”